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Schimek, J.G. (1975). The Interpretations of the Past: Childhood Trauma, Psychical Reality, and Historical Truth. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 23:845-865.

(1975). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 23:845-865

The Interpretations of the Past: Childhood Trauma, Psychical Reality, and Historical Truth

J. G. Schimek, Ph.D.


Even Freud's initial "seduction" theory deals with the past as reconstructed by the analyst, not as remembered by the patient. The changes in the belief in the factual reality of infantile traumas reflect the vicissitudes of "the great father theme" in Freud's self-analysis and clinical thought, as well as his lasting commitment to a certain model of causal explanation. The concept of a psychical reality created by instinctual drives was never a sufficient substitute for actual events. Aspects of human development that Freud considered basic and universal, such as the Oedipus complex, had to be grounded on prehistoric deeds, transmitted as universal inherited memories and phylogenetic "schemata."

Is it still possible or even necessary to assume that interpretations, like archaeology, aim at the recreation of the past as it once existed? Or that the creation of new meanings and relationships, mediated by different levels of symbolic and linguistic processes, can be reduced to a causal explanation on the model of natural science? Such questions point to the need for a new look at the actual process of interpretation, its underlying rationale and function. Freud's ideas about universal schemata and the search for actual deeds or action patterns—as the source of later ideational structures—can be related to some aspects of modern developmental psychology (e.g., Piaget) and structuralist approaches.

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